Sawdust is one of the most useful by-products on the planet. It has a distinctive smell, different for each tree type, which can evoke memories of childhood visits to circuses and woodyards. Obviously sawdust has been around for as long as there have been carpenters – including those of the ant and beetle variety. It's not known who first realised sawdust could be useful in its own right; whether it was something that just crept into use through necessity or a matter of serendipity after someone had a nasty accident while cutting wood. However, throughout the ages, people have found many intriguing uses for it besides stuffing mattresses for napping on. Here are 42 uses and related facts about sawdust:
In ancient Egypt, they honoured their dead by embalming the human (and animal) remains. The gory details of the process have their own Entry, but usually around the 40th day of mummification, the body cavity would be stuffed with sawdust and leaves to make it human-shaped again before linen wrappings were applied to finish off the job.
It's Raining Sawdust
Old-fashioned sawmills had pits where tree trunks were cut into long planks. The man at the bottom of the pit (always the apprentice) was very familiar with sawdust as he spent his day covered in it. His ambition was to be the 'top man' (also known as 'top dog' – hence the man underneath was the 'underdog').
Toys of a Princess
In the 19th Century, Oshkosh, Wisconsin became known as 'Sawdust City' thanks to its 24 sawmills. Today's Oshkosh residents hold the annual Sawdust Days festival, which won the 'People's Choice Award' in 2005 and 2006.
'Beehive' burners1, which aren't legal to operate in Canada anymore, were once used to burn up sawdust at lumber mills. They still exist but are a lot more attractive now that they aren't belching smoke.
Blood, Guts and Gore
In the good old days when barbers doubled up as dentists and also surgeons, there's no doubt that the floors of their premises were sawdust-strewn for ease of mopping up gory spills.
Buckets of sawdust would have been a necessary cargo on board old sailing ships, just in case any passengers or crew members suffered a bout of mal-de-mer (seasickness).
Sawdust would most likely be spread on the floor of the 'square circle' (a boxing ring) in the event of either sparring athlete having to spit out any loosened teeth complete with accompanying blood.
Accidents happen quite frequently, and when it's frail human bodies coming into contact with hard items like buses and cars, the end result is rather messy. A policeman's job sometimes involves cleaning up, well, anything – including vomit, blood and human waste. So, to be handed a bucket of sawdust generally means they've drawn the short straw.
Taxi drivers know that an inebriated passenger may throw up while being driven home. So some cabbies display a warning notice in their cab, stating that such misbehaviour will cost extra (car valeting isn't cheap). However, most accept it as one of the hazards of the job, and keep a container of sawdust and a bottle of disinfectant in the cab's boot for just such occasions.
No self-respecting school janitor would respond to a call without a bucket of sawdust, which would be used to soak up spills like milk and vomit, and hopefully dampen down smells to minimise the chances of any sympathetic reactions.
A cowboy film starring the likes of 'The Duke' John Wayne wouldn't have been a true western without a copious supply of sawdust. This was spread on the wooden floor of the saloon and each side of the spittoon – hence the nickname 'spit-and-sawdust pub'. The tobacco-chewing bad guys would get their comeuppance courtesy of the hero, who would pump them full of lead and then leave the poor bartender to clean up the blood, guts and gore while he swaggered off into the sunset, his spirits buoyed no doubt by the cheers, spits and swoons of the adoring crowd.
From Sawdust to Celebrity
Essex girl Chantelle Houghton used to work as a barmaid in a spit-and-sawdust pub called The Duke, in Wickford, UK. Then, unable to resist the chance to better herself, she answered an appeal for an 'unknown' to masquerade as a 'celebrity' in an upcoming reality TV programme called Celebrity Big Brother, a spin-off of the mega-successful Big Brother. Her performance was so good that she won, creating a modern-day rags-to-riches story.
It'll Get You Into Heaven
There was a time in evangelical history when being Saved meant 'hitting the sawdust trail'. In structures ranging from tents to tabernacles, those who felt the call walked down a sawdust-covered aisle to where the preacher stood, there to receive salvation. A song of the trail has been sung by 'The Ferriday Fireball' Jerry Lee Lewis.
In Antigua during Holy Week (the week prior to Easter) the residents make beautifully-patterned carpets of coloured sawdust in the streets to prepare for the upcoming religious procession on Good Friday.
DeForest Kelley, Dr Leonard 'Bones' McCoy of Star Trek fame, apparently took a reverse trip up the trail from his evangelical beginnings to Hollywood, as revealed in his biography From Sawdust to Stardom by Terry Lee Rioux.
Mixing together two parts sawdust with one part dry wallpaper paste and water makes a clay recipe suitable for children to model (under adult supervision). Once the shapes – which can be anything from dinosaurs to aliens – are crafted, they should be left to dry for more than 24 hours before being painted.
The circus ring in the 'Big Top' is sometimes referred to as the 'sawdust circle'. The ring is frequented by large and exotic performing animals. Excrement isn't so sticky after it lands on sawdust, so it's easier to clean up afterwards.
The floor of the Blue Peter studio wasn't adequately prepared for the arrival of a baby elephant called Lulu, who emptied her bladder and bowels while on camera. When she decided she'd had her 15 minutes of fame, she took off, dragging her keeper through the mess, causing him to slip and slide. The Blue Peter presenters tried to keep calm during the mayhem but John Noakes couldn't contain his laughter. This archive clip is regularly featured on TV 'Golden Moments' and 'Blooper' type shows for the delight of viewers.
Mix cat litter together with sawdust and spread thickly in the litter tray. The combination makes scooping out the poo easier, and helps prevent too much of a pong. Change the whole box contents before the cat starts walking its waste around the kitchen floor. The sawdust also lines the litter tray, making emptying it easier, as it's less likely that the poo is stuck to the bottom of the tray.
Sawdust dampens down smells, a useful fact to know if you keep dogs and want to do something productive with a collection of its waste - such as making liquid fertiliser. Use some sawdust to line their kennel floor.
Small domestic animals that are kept in cages, such as hamsters, gerbils, mice and pet rats should have the base of their cage covered in sawdust. This will soak up urine, but will need to be replaced regularly.
It's a well-known fact that animals sense what's going to happen when attempts are made to get them into a pet carrier or cardboard box for a trip to the vet. Some animals behave while others lose control of their bodily functions, which won't be pleasant in your car or on the bus. Line any large-enough lidded box with newspaper covered by a layer of sawdust and transport the animal inside. This won't make the container leak-proof, but it will soak up quite a bit and help mask the odour.
Change Toads into Beer
Improvisation is required when you catch a Cane Toad and have to transport it to the government beer-distributing destination. The Cane Toad 'plague' has reached epidemic proportions in Australia, and it's an ecological disaster. The government is so worried about the invaders that they offer free beer bounty for captured toads. You don't need a proper pet carrier to claim your beer; just line a box with newspaper and sawdust to soak up any spills. Squeamish people needn't worry about having to dispatch the animal beforehand; toads are accepted dead or alive.
Raw (untreated) sawdust used to be used as roof insulation, but nowadays regulations require that it should be treated for protection against mould, decay, insects, rodents and fire2 to satisfy your insurance company.
Sawdust was deemed the best insulation in icehouses, both as stuffing between the double walls and as packing around the ice blocks. It also keeps ice cream cool during transportation and storage.
Cleaning Up Oil
Any premises that uses oil, such as auto garages, are likely to suffer spillage. This is one time when paper towels alone won't do, so a bucket of sawdust is really practical. The sawdust will absorb the oil and can then be shovelled up.
Sawdust can be prepared in such a way that it becomes attractive to oil and repellent to water. This means that you can blow it out onto an oil spill where it will absorb 3½ times its weight in oil and float for days until it is retrieved by scoopers, vacuums or suchlike. In the meantime, it doesn't stick to anything – in particular not to birds' feathers. The oil-soaked sawdust can then be burned as fuel in a furnace.
'If I Only Had A Brain'
In the Wizard of Oz, one of Dorothy Gale's companions along the Yellow Brick Road on the way to the Emerald City was the Scarecrow. He wanted to ask the wizard for a brain, because all he had inside his head was sawdust.
Light Up Your Life
If you live where a power-grid is not handy but sawdust is, then you might seriously consider making your own power. All you need is a gas generator and a modified internal combustion engine with an alternator on it. Farmers have been doing this for (at the time of writing, circa 2007) about a century – though more often to run a tractor directly than to light up the house. The gas generator is usually some kind of can that you throw combustible stuff into, including sawdust of course. You heat it up (by lighting a fire underneath) and blow air through. Out come useful burning gases such as carbon monoxide, hydrogen, methane and oxygen, and also about an equal quantity of non-burning gases such as carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide all of which you pipe to the intake of the engine and voila! Farmers, start your engines.
'Sawdust & Diamonds' is a track on Joanna Newsom's album Live at Bottletree.
Sequins and Sawdust was a show about the life of the clown Phinnaeus Capelli, which was brought to the South Bank, London, and Castle Park in Bristol in 2007, with co-operation from Cirque Bijou, The Circus Space and Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.
All this algae photosynthesises just like land plants do, but because it's spread over such a vast surface of the water it's responsible for most of the oxygen we have in the atmosphere now.
- Dr Rob Beaman of James Cook University.
The Elvis Factor
It's difficult to find a subject which newspaper reporters and Researchers can't attribute or link in some way to Elvis Presley, and nEfs (non-Elvis fans) will no doubt groan at the tenuousness of the connection, but in 2006 a valuable collection of hundreds of rare teddy bears and other sawdust-stuffed memorabilia was mauled by the Doberman pinscher which was supposed to be guarding them. The savaged remains included a now-unrecognisable 1909 German-made Steiff teddy bear once owned by Elvis. Damn that hound dog!
Just in case you didn't know
A 'Lucky Dip' stall at a British Village Fête will have a large container like an oil drum filled with sawdust, with certain 'treasures' buried inside. For a nominal fee the punter dips their hand in and retrieves their prize.
As well as stuffing for mattresses, sawdust is used as a shock absorber in punch or kicking bags, medicine balls, boxing gloves, stress balls, etc.
Sawdust is an essential ingredient in the making of firestarters. Add resin and it will become a briquette used in fireplaces. It does not burn as wood does, though the sawdust acts as a wick.
Mixing sawdust with super glue helps the repair to bond on an uneven surface. Keep the sawdust when you drill into wood or cut it with a saw; you can cover any recessed screw-heads or fill any knot-holes in the wood with a mixture of PVA (wood glue) and the sawdust you kept. Because PVA is clear when dry, this will give you a filler that matches the colour of the wood.
Wood chippings and sawdust, compressed with some glue at moderate temperature, makes chipboard, fibreboard and other pressed woods. Most cheap modern furniture is made of these glued-together wood mashups.
Boil the wood chips, dry the pulp and make paper.
Will They Power Your Car With Sawdust From Canada? is an intriguing Entry well worth a read if you're interested in learning how consuming more alcohol can help save the planet...